I listened to the sounds from upstairs; Cal seemed to be explaining something to Jay, who laughed. There was a bit more talk, then I heard Jay coming back downstairs. He came into the living room, sat on the other sofa and put a large box of tissues on the table.
łI dare you.
‘Can’t promise anything.’
łFuck, me neither, actually mate. I’m so bloody tired, this has been such a bloody long time coming. Anyway, here we are. I don’t really know where to start. I want … I need to … ah fuck it, I just want you to be honest. Really honest with me. I want to know what went wrong, I guess. I don’t know what order to do things in, I’m not very good at this heart-to-heart shit. Maybe –
He took a deep breath.
łJesus, I’ve been thinking about this all afternoon, sitting with Matty, you’d think I’d have it all straight by now. OK, there’s one thing I keep thinking about, wondering about, I don’t know if you can explain it. What the fuck possessed you to give Raiders a dodgy passport when you first arrived?
I was silent for a while, thinking back, trying to get it straight in my mind.
‘I didn’t do it on purpose.’
łCome on, Dec, you must have known.
‘Maybe part of me did. It seems so long ago. I was Declan by then, so I used Declan’s passport.’
łWhat do you mean? You make it sound like you changed your identity or something.
I breathed in deeply. This was hard, visiting places I’d buried a long time ago.
‘I … kind of did. Shit, Jay. I’ve … I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone about this. I know you want me to be honest, I want to be, but all this shit from back then, I’m not sure if I can even say it. Bear with me, yeah?’
He nodded. I wanted him to say it was OK, I didn’t have to carry on, but he didn’t. He just sat, looking at me.
I ran my hands over my face. Another couple of deep breaths. Reached into that deep, dark place.
‘Declan Summers is the name I was given when I was born. Actually, Declan Charles Summers. My real name, if you like, if you go back far enough. I was born in England, to English parents, whoever the fuck they were, don’t know, don’t really care. I was adopted when I was a baby, by my Mum and Dad, who were Australian. Their last name was Collier. They took my middle name and called me Charlie.’
My voice broke as I said it. No one I loved had called me Charlie for a very long time. Memories and feelings crowded in, threatening to paralyse me. I stopped talking for a while, summoning the strength to carry on. Jay was still looking at me, frowning slightly.
‘Anyway, so I had an Australian passport that said I was Charlie Collier and a British passport that said I was Declan Summers. Don’t ask me how I wound up with two, I really don’t know; there are so many gaps I can’t fill in. All I know is, when I ended up on my own in this fucking country after Mum and Dad …’
This was the part that was hard, the part I had pushed away, hidden, tried not to think about. I took some more ragged breaths.
‘… I was thirteen. I was Charlie Collier. I didn’t want to be Charlie Collier, it was too fucking hard. Charlie Collier’s parents were dead. Charlie Collier was put into care because nobody wanted him. Charlie Collier was having a really shit time. So I went back to being Declan Summers. Changed foster homes, changed schools, changed names. It was easier. It was better. No one had seen Declan Summers’ name in the paper, no one felt sorry for Declan Summers, no one felt weird being with Declan Summers because his parents were dead. Declan Summers was a clean slate. I didn’t think about passports or legal stuff, I was only thirteen for fuck’s sake.’
łJesus, Dec. I had no idea. We didn’t know any of this. Only the bare bones, about your parents, being in care. We never asked because you never seemed to want to talk about it. Didn’t you have social workers or anything?
‘Yeah, when they could be bothered. I don’t think I was badly behaved enough, although I tried my hardest. I saw counsellors, on and off, but I moved around a lot, and it was easy just to miss appointments. No one could keep track of me. I was a bit wild, but I didn’t break the law or anything, maybe a few tellings off from the police for getting into fights, smashing stuff up, that kind of thing. Social Services pretty much let me get on with it, my foster families weren’t much better. I did whatever I wanted. Luckily, some of what I wanted was playing rugby. Dad got me into it, used to take me to watch before we moved over here …
The memory crept up on me and took me by surprise. It stopped me in my tracks, halting my breath, as a wave of loss and desolation crashed over me. I stared at the floor, trying to breathe, trying to bring myself back.
‘Fuck, Jay. I … it’s … sorry. I haven’t thought about this shit for so long. It’s just too fucking hard.’
With an effort I pushed it away, hid the memories from myself. Thought about what Jay had asked me, and focussed on that.
‘Anyway, you asked about my passport. By the time I was scouted by Raiders, I was well and truly Declan. Nobody remembered I had been Charlie, I barely remembered myself. It didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t use Declan’s passport at Raiders – why would I have gone back to being Charlie? I really didn’t do it on purpose, I just never even thought about it.’
łSo why did you use your other passport when you crashed your car?
‘I don’t know. I’ve kept myself awake many nights thinking about that one. Well, I suppose the passport bit’s easy. When I was questioned by the police after the accident, I just gave my name as Charlie Collier. I have no idea why. I was kind of sleepwalking, on automatic pilot, it just came out. Once I’d told them that name, I couldn’t change it, too many explanations, and I had to give them all the right paperwork. Maybe I was having another go at the self-protection thing, you know, try being a different person, then maybe all this didn’t really happen to me. It worked before. Plus, I was terrified. That man had died. I think I just wanted to escape it all, not think about it. But it all got so complicated. When the inquest was reported in the paper, I realised what a mess I’d made of things. It dawned on me what I’d done, giving them the wrong name, the wrong passport, and then I finally realised that I might have got Raiders in trouble too. I should have come clean to the club, talked to you, something, tried to sort it out. But I was so deep in it all, I couldn’t see a way through it. I just buried it all again. Hoped it might go away if no one found out. I mean, maybe it was going to come out sooner or later, but later was fine by me, just then.’
łJesus, Dec. This all sounds seriously fucked up. Who the fuck are you? Do you even know?
I looked at him miserably, shook my head. I’d tried to be honest, tell him how things had been. Now I was scared I’d just made things more confusing, made myself look more of a liar, and taken several steps backwards in trying to mend things, pushed him further away.
‘It’s been hard. I … I’ve been in a weird place, done things that felt like … like someone else was doing them. I’m still me.’
łI know you are, mate, I don’t think you’ve changed, really, but what I mean is, it’s all jumbled up in your head. How have you managed to keep any of it straight? Without completely cracking up?
‘I’m not sure I have, really. Most of my fuck-ups over the last few months I can’t explain, even to myself. I’m pretty much an emotional wreck, just ask Rose, she’s had to pick me up more times than I can count.’
łMate, you’ve had a really tough time, done most of it on your own. You’ve had to be pretty strong, I think, to cope with everything. I wish we’d known more, I wish we’d been able to help you. Jesus, thinking of you on your own here, no parents, in care … was there really no one who you could have gone to?
‘I didn’t have any other family here. Nobody back in Australia who gave a shit. No other choice.’
łBut a thirteen year old kid, you shouldn’t have been on your own. It’s … fuck, I just can’t believe it was allowed to happen.
‘It was shit for a long time. Deep, dark, shit. I was pretty fucked up. Well, you know what I was like when I first arrived. But that’s when it started to change, when I got the Raiders scholarship and came to live with you and Beth. It just got better. Yeah, I had a lot of stuff in my head that I hadn’t sorted, wasn’t going to touch, but you gave me back some of what I’d lost. I don’t know if you realise how much you helped. I don’t know if I realised it until I lost it. You and Beth cared about me, you let me in, wanted me. Raiders wanted me. I hadn’t felt wanted for such a bloody long time –
My voice broke again. My emotions were threatening to overwhelm me, close up my throat and shut me down completely. Jay waited, looking sad and worried.
I slept on into the evening, waking up to find Mum and Beth reading magazines, looking for all the world like they were in a waiting room.
They both looked up together, both got the same relieved look on their faces at the same time, and it was so funny, but I remembered what laughing had done to me last time and satisfied myself with an inner chuckle.
‘Hi Matty. You’re back with us, then. Want something to eat, sweetheart?’
Not really, but I’d learned that unless I said yes, they’d just spend the next hour offering me all sorts of weird shit to try and tempt me. ‘Yeh.’
‘We’ve made some mince pies, dear.’
I loved Mum’s mince pies. And I loved Beth’s mince pies. The thought of them made my mouth water. Fancy that.
‘I think ‘yes please’ is the acceptable form of address, dear.’
‘Fuck yeh plehs.’
Beth rolled her eyes and left, hopefully to fetch some mince pies and not to teach me a lesson for swearing. She did know I totally owned Cripple’s Corner, right? Whether she realised this or not, she came back a minute or two later with two plates of mince pies.
‘One lot was made by me, and the other by Carol. Your challenge is to tell us which is which.’
‘Wha? Noh, I can’t choose.’
‘You don’t have to say whose is the best, just whose is whose.’
I could already tell. I’d know one of Mum’s mince pies anywhere. But I played along, eating one of each, then going back and having a bite out of both, which was the point really, that I ate something, and I knew it, and Beth and Mum knew it, but fuck it, if it was a game and not something they were bloody going on about, it was worth it.
I pointed to the appropriate plates. Beth clapped.
‘Well done. How could you tell?’
‘Cahnt divuhlge my sehcrets.’
‘Oh well. Cup of tea to wash it down? Or how about your build-up?’
‘Are you sure? You’ve only had –’
She was in danger of spoiling it, and I needed to be firm.
She left again to make the tea, and Mum took my hand.
‘How are you feeling, dear?’
‘Go back to sleep then.’
‘Yuhrs ahr the behst.’
I closed my eyes as the smuggest smile I had ever seen crept over my mum’s face.
‘Sorry, all this is really hard to say. When … when I fucked it all up in the summer, crashed my car and the whole fucking mess that came out of that, I went back there to that deep, dark, shit place. Back to being on my own. It was what I deserved. I’d pissed away everything. I wasn’t worth anything to anyone. Everything else I did after that came from being there.’
łDec, this … I’m not sure I know what to say. It’s a lot to take in. But you never deserved to be on your own. You never deserved to think you’re not worth anything. No one deserves that. I wish … things had been different. I don’t know, you’d talked to us, or things had just happened differently. Jesus, all this is way beyond me. But it does help me to understand it a bit. You definitely are going to see Don’s psychologist?
łWell that’s something. Jesus, everything else I was going to say seems a bit trivial after that. Look, Dec, we can leave this for now, if you want, or we can carry on, thrash out all the crap that’s been between us the last few months. We’ve got to do it sometime. You look a bit shaky, though. Your call.
I sat, head bowed, considering. It was so, so hard to talk about. I didn’t know if I had the mental strength for any of it, but more than anything, I really wanted things to be right with me and Jay.
‘No, carry on. I want to sort things out. I’m OK, I’ll be OK.’
łOK, if you’re sure.
I nodded. He ran a hand through his hair.
łYou know, Dec, when you first came to live with us, you were … how can I put it?
‘Bit of a nightmare?’
łYeah, maybe, for want of a better word. Don was asking for volunteers to give you a room for a few weeks, Beth persuaded me to give it a go. I thought I wouldn’t see much of you, except at work, and maybe you’d need a bit of an eye keeping on you to start with, but the club would find somewhere else for you before long, and you’d be gone.
He took a breath, looked down at his fingers.
łAnyway, more than a few weeks went by, you were still there, I saw more of you than I expected because you kept ditching school and bringing those bloody Goths home with you. I hassled Don to find you somewhere else, but it didn’t happen. Beth was determined to give you a go anyway, said she could see your potential – must have been buried bloody deep down.
I was quiet. This all seemed like it had happened so long ago; I was so different now.
łI was a bit worried about the effect you were having on Cal, but Beth kept saying how good you were with him, and when I thought about it, you were. Maybe not a particularly good role model, with the underage drinking, the dodgy mates, the bunking off school and the bad language, but you played with him, and talked to him, and took care of him, and generally seemed to like having him around. He can only have been – what – two when you first arrived?
‘Something like that I guess. It was like having a little brother.’
łYeah, I know. You both seemed to hit it off, from the start really. Anyway, as well as being great with Cal, gradually other things changed, you settled down, you just started doing what you were told. Ditched the attitude, ditched the Goths, knuckled down at school and in training, actually grew up quite a bit, got sensible even. After a while, I never thought any more about you moving on somewhere else, you just became part of us, part of the family.
Jay paused, shaking his head slightly as if confused about what came next.
łWhen we came back from Portugal, though, it was like you’d gone back to being that sixteen year old nightmare – staying in your room, going out without saying where, all that. We couldn’t work out what had happened. For a while we wondered if you were pissed off with us for something, leaving you on your own while we went on holiday maybe, but it felt bigger than being a bit pissed off. We felt out of our depth, wondered if we should have got more help with you when you first got here, found out a bit more about you, so we could talk to you about what went on when you were younger. Maybe if we had, it would have changed things. Too late by then, you were over eighteen.
By the time I was eighteen, I had stopped childishly hankering after the ‘real parents’ I’d wanted Jay and Beth to be. I was well on the road to independence, thought I was tough enough not to need anyone. My life seemed littered with if onlys …
łBeth had tried so hard with you when you first arrived, she’d just seemed to know what to do to help you calm down and relax with us. Even she was at a loss, though, nothing was getting through. Then you moved out, didn’t even say goodbye, hardly ever answered your phone, and you never returned calls. You barely spoke to me at the club, except when you had to. For me, I felt like you’d chucked everything back in our faces, it was a real kick in the teeth. The only thing that wasn’t affected was your playing and your training.
‘It was all I had, I just had to hang on to it. If I hadn’t had that – well I needed it, it got me through everything else. When I was suspended, couldn’t even go to the ground, everything just got so much worse.’
łI guess so, I’m still trying to piece it all together. So, that went on for a while, we felt like you’d cut us out of your life, doing whatever the fuck it was you were doing. Beth was really upset, I was just bloody angry. We thought you just didn’t want us any more Cal really missed you, he kept asking why you weren’t there, and we didn’t really have a good answer. I know you came round a couple of times to see him, I guess that made a difference, but it was tough on him.
I felt close to tears thinking about how much I’d upset Cal.
‘I feel terrible. In my head, I was doing the right thing.’
łWhich was what, exactly?
‘Keeping away. I was one enormous fuck-up. Everything I touched seemed to turn to shit, from the moment I crashed my car. Every time I tried to make things better, they just got worse. I wanted to keep everyone away from me, so no one got dragged into it. When that bloke turned up at the house, asking for money, he scared me. I thought he was genuine, didn’t I, and he was pretty full on, intimidating. I had to move out, I didn’t want him to come round when Beth or Cal were there, I was scared he might do something to them, frighten them or something, to get at me, but I couldn’t explain it without telling you what I’d done. I couldn’t tell you what I’d done because it was just too huge, too many consequences I wasn’t in control of. I couldn’t face it. The less I talked to you, the less likely I was to slip up and tell you. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all.’
łJesus, Dec. What a mess, what a fucking screwed up mess. Makes sense? Fuck, no. None of this makes any fucking sense. It sounds like you didn’t want to lose it all, so you threw it all away instead – you really weren’t thinking straight, were you? Thing is, you’ve tried to carry all this alone. I guess maybe I can see why, now, if you felt like you’d gone back to a place where you had to just look out for yourself. But for us, when we came back from holiday in the summer, your car was gone, your bloody precious car, no explanation, and it was like you were gone too. You were like a different person. You wouldn’t talk to us, you stayed in your room, then a few weeks later you left with some bloody lame story about a college course. It was so obviously not true. We didn’t know what to think. We thought you’d met a girl or something – it felt like you were ditching us. Why didn’t you talk to us? Everything might have been different if you’d just said something.
‘I don’t know if I can explain it. I just shut down. After I crashed my car, I felt panicky the whole time you were away. I don’t know if it would have been different if you hadn’t been away when it happened, but by the time you came back I’d gone into a kind of … like a daze or fog or something. I was scared someone was going to find out, that man had died and, I dunno, I thought I might go to prison or something. I don’t know if I was … ashamed? Terrified? Both. Couldn’t deal with it, pushed it down with all the other shit. Then that bloke came round, saying he wanted paying for what I did to his dad, and it seemed like I could fix it, make things better. I thought if I gave him what he wanted, it would all go away. I know it sounds mad now, but that’s what I thought. But to do it I had to make sure nobody knew, so I just … let everything go. If I didn’t see people they wouldn’t ask questions. I really think I might have been a bit mad. It sounds crazy just saying it.’
łJesus, Dec. Don’s shrink is sounding more and more necessary. This is all way beyond me. Something Rose said, while you were in hospital – did you know we called her, talked to her for a long time when we got back home?
‘You said, she’s never mentioned it.’
łShe’s bloody great, you owe her a lot.
łAnyway, she told us some of why she thought you’d done the things you did, she saw what we couldn’t I guess, that you were really mixed up. We just saw what you were doing, how it affected us; Rose could see a bit of why.’
I thought about why that might have been.
‘I told Rose everything, things I never told you or Beth.’
łMaybe that explains it. She said you’re a bit fragile where families are concerned. It never occurred to us that you’d lost two lots of parents before you came to us – you never really talked about it, we never realised there was this much going on in your head. But she wondered if you felt you needed to deal with stuff on your own, partly because that’s how you’d learned to do things when you were in trouble, and partly because you were scared you’d lose us if you involved us.
I thought about it, but couldn’t begin to unravel my motives.
‘Could be. Did the opposite, though, didn’t it. Pretty much wrecked everything with you and Beth.’
łMaybe for a while, but don’t forget what I said to you before. Family is family, and you’re part of ours, if you want it. Actually, no, whether you want it or not. That’s never going to change, whatever happens. I don’t know if you get that, or believe it. Jesus, Dec, I said some fucking awful things to you. I lose sleep over that time I yelled at you in the car park. I was just so angry with you, and upset about Matty, it all just came out. I won’t say I didn’t mean it, because on that day I really did, and for a while afterwards, but now when I think about it, Jesus, if I could take it back, not say it …
‘Nothing I didn’t deserve.’
łDec, I don’t get this ‘what I deserve’ bullshit. Where’s it coming from? You cocked things up big time, made some seriously fucking horrendous decisions, there were consequences. But deserve it? I don’t see it.
‘Worthless piece of shit.’
‘That’s what I am, why I deserve it all, everything that’s happened, everything you said to me, all of it. I’ve screwed so many things up – your job, Cal, Raiders’ chances of top four. Shit, Jay, I fucking killed someone –’
łJesus! I can’t believe what I’m hearing. What the fuck are you talking about? Do you think I’d let a worthless piece of shit spend the day with my son? Or have a laugh with my brother? Or hug my wife? I’ve met some fucking worthless pieces of shit in my time, and believe me you are not one. Yeah, I know, someone died, that must be fucking terrible for you to have to live with, but it wasn’t your fault. It was a fucking awful accident. Jesus. Dec, you seriously, seriously need some help with all this.
I tried to go to sleep, I really did, but when it’s Christmas tomorrow, it’s very hard, because the excited feeling just bubbles up in your tummy and stops you.
I could hear Dad and Dec talking in the living room, which was below my room, although I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I lay in bed for a long time, hearing the voices in the room below, and then I thought that if I went and sat on the stairs, I might be able to hear more. Sometimes I did that to hear what Mum and Dad were saying, but they usually had the door open. The door was shut, though, and I couldn’t hear much more from half way up the stairs than I could from my bed. I stayed and listened to their voices, because I liked hearing Dad and Dec talking – I hadn’t heard it for a long time, and it made me feel happy.
I had no reply for him, finding it hard to meet his eyes, trying to blink away the tears in my own. Jay’s tone of voice and anger had taken me back to the day he got the letter about the inquest, and to him yelling at me in the car park. I felt like I was about to lose him all over again.
łYou’re going quiet on me, come on, we’re not finished yet.
‘I can’t handle it.’
‘If I lose you all again.’
łHave you not heard a word I’ve said? OK, words of one syllable. We. Love. You. Jesus, that’s not something you’re going to hear me say often. But that’s what you need to hear. You’re part of our family. That’s what it means. Part of us. Forever. Family. Jay, Beth, Cal and Dec. Nothing you can do, nothing I can do will change it. Beth told me what you said to Cal, about being cross with people but still loving them. It’s true – you can’t lose us, that’s just how it is. You haven’t fucked anything up with us, not deep down. It’s taken me a while to get there, to understand it – I guess it might take you a while too – but you’re family. I think that’s as important to you as it is to us. I hope we never have to go through anything like the last few months again to make us realise it.
It finally did get through. I couldn’t quite take it in. I’d spent so long convincing myself I’d lost it all, I hadn’t realised how hard it would be for me to see things differently. It needed time to sink in.
I took a shaky breath, leaned forwards and rubbed my face with my hands, trying to grab hold of what Jay had just said. He nudged the tissue box towards me.
‘No, I’m OK.’
Although the tremble in my voice told a different story.
łDo you get it now?
‘I think so.’
It was actually starting to feel like something had set me free, something that had kept me chained up for months.
‘Jay, being here, it’s so huge for me. A few weeks ago, I thought I’d blown it, thought I’d never see any of you again. What I did, what you said – I thought that was it, finished. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my head round that, trying to accept it. It’s been hard. Being here with you all, thinking maybe I might not have fucked it all up, it’s taking some getting used to. It doesn’t feel real yet. I can hardly believe it.’
łIt feels pretty huge for us too, Dec. It’s been fairly fucking shitty, hasn’t it? Yeah, I know what you mean, getting our heads round it all might take a while. But I’m glad you’re here, it feels right. I didn’t know if it would be weird or awkward, but it hasn’t been, it’s almost like we’ve started where we left off, before we went on holiday. Yeah, everything’s been shit for all of us, but I think we can leave that behind, I hope we can. Especially if you’re going to get some help sorting out the large amount of crap that seems to be lodged in your head?
‘Yeah. I will – I am.’
łThank fuck for that. I need to ask you just one more thing, though, if you can hack it. About Cal asking about us being cross with him. That’s been an ongoing thing since he called you that time on my phone. What the fuck did you tell him?
I thought back. It seemed a long time ago, when I felt like I was somewhere else and someone else.
‘Well, a while ago, when you were still living in the city, me and Cal made a plan to go to Dinosaurland on his birthday. I’d forgotten, with everything that happened, but he hadn’t, of course. He’d decided you were going to bring him down, so we could still do it. I tried to put him off, told him I couldn’t do it, you wouldn’t do it, but he had an answer for everything. I had to tell him something, explain it somehow, without telling any more lies. The only way I could do that was to tell him the truth.’
łYour version of which being …?
‘That I was a thief and a liar, and you were cross with me about it and didn’t want to see me any more’
łJesus Christ, did you say it just like that?
‘I can’t remember exactly. Probably not far off. I know it was a bit blunt – I was panicking, I was really messed up, not thinking straight. It was so good to talk to him, I needed to tell him the truth, but I was about to break a promise to him, and it freaked me out. I’d told so many lies, I just couldn’t do it any more, especially to Cal.’
łWell that explains a lot. He had a really hard time getting to grips with that one. And that’s when you lost Beth, she was pretty upset with you. Cal kept on and on that day about why we were cross, were we cross with him. For a little while he couldn’t cope if we bickered with each other, and he really thought if he annoyed us at all we were going to kick him out, not speak to him. Beth was really angry – up till then she’d been trying to make excuses for you, tried to talk about you with Cal, but that tipped it for her. It just seemed like you didn’t even care about Cal any more, about how what you said might affect him. It wasn’t until he ran away that she’d even mention your name again. I guess that was only about a week later, wasn’t it, but it seemed longer. I couldn’t even think about you. Jesus, I’m getting pissed off just talking about it now.
I listened to all this, in growing misery. I’d been so happy today, spending time with Cal, feeling like I might be back in their family. If I’d damaged Cal in any way, I couldn’t bear it.
‘I had no idea, Jay, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know what else to say at the time. I tried to talk to him yesterday, told him you can care about someone and be cross with them at the same time.’
łI know, mate, I know how much you love him. I think we’ve got him to see that we’d never do any of the things he was worried about. He’s OK now. Ignore me, I’m just letting off steam, I need to tell you how it was for us. I know you were having a hard time, we’ve talked to Rose a lot, and Nico and Lis. They’ve helped us to see, I think, that you haven’t really been yourself for quite a while. Nico was so worried about you the night after the points hearing, he came home and told us everything, even though we’d said we didn’t want to know anything about you. He says you were in a right state.
‘I guess I was. That was a tough night. I felt like I’d lost absolutely everything, couldn’t see how I was going to carry on. Rose and Nico were amazing.’
łDec, I have to say, again, I think it’s really important you spend time with Don’s psychologist bloke.
‘Yeah. Got an appointment in the New Year.’
łGood. You need to sort your head out.
‘I know. I’m a mess.’
łYeah, you’re a bloody head case, but you’ve had a lot to cope with. You just need some help to sort it out.
‘Can I ask you something?’
łSeems fair, you’ve been pretty brutally fucking honest with me so far.
‘Did you leave Raiders because of me?’
łJesus. Jesus, Dec. Well, fair question I suppose. OK … maybe, thinking about it … I guess, in a way, yeah.
He saw the anguish on my face, and held a hand up to stop me.
łHold on, before you go off on another guilt trip, let me explain. That day, when the letter came about your accident, and everything went arse about face, was the worst possible day it could have come. I’d just had a call from Mum to say Matty was in hospital, and it wasn’t looking very good. Beth and I had been trying to decide whether we needed to come up here to help Mum out – Matty was diagnosed in the summer, shortly after you moved out, but he hadn’t been too bad, he was living with his girlfriend, still working, although he’d had to cut his hours down. Then he started to get worse, his girlfriend left him, it was pretty messy, he got this cold, or flu or whatever, and just went downhill.
I was still trying to get the sequence of events straight in my head. That time, back when everything crashed around me, was hazy, but now Jay was telling it in order, I could understand why he’d been so angry.
łAnyway, Mum had just rung, and I was trying to get organised to come up here, when I get this letter about you, saying did I know you’d killed a man and did I know who you really are. I think it’s a joke, or some nutter stirring it, until I show it to you and you crumple like you’ve been shot. And then Don says you’ve taken the charity money, and all the shit with your passport, and it just seems like you’ve been lying about everything. And I can’t believe it’s all fucking happening at once, and it makes me so mad, and I can’t even start to think about it or know what the fuck to do about it –
Jay’s voice broke, his face buckled, and tears leaked from the corners of his eyes. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
łBollocks, I can’t believe I caved first. It just brings it all back.
He half laughed, half sobbed, took a shuddering breath.
łSorry, anyway, so I want to get away, come up here to be with Matty in case … but now I’ve got to deal with you, and you’re being all uncommunicative, and I don’t have the patience, or the time. And everyone I talk to is telling me you owe them money, and I feel like I just don’t know who the fuck you are any more It’s like you’ve been pulling the wool over our eyes all this time. And maybe if you don’t want us, we don’t want you either.
This was hard to hear. At the time I hadn’t thought how it might look to Jay and Beth. I’d only thought of getting away to protect both myself and them. I had never not wanted them; being apart from them had been the hardest thing.
łSo I decided I’d just quit, there and then, come up here, so I didn’t have to piss about with you, or have you or anyone else stop me from looking after my brother. Don didn’t want me to go, he said I could have some personal leave, but I guess, to answer your question, I wanted to get away and not have to come back and face all your shit, so, yeah, if I’m honest I did leave because of you. But, Dec, it was my decision. And it was the right one, thinking about it. I don’t want anyone else looking after Matty. Me and Beth have got it covered. I’m glad I came up here, it’s where I should be. Mum needs it and Matty needs it.
I was silent for a moment as I tried to figure out what to say.
‘I wish there was a better word – I’m sorry.’
łDon’t make me sodding punch you. Listen to me. It’s not about sorry or blame, or at least it’s not now. I guess I did blame you at first. But, like I said when you were in hospital, well, something like that happens and you realise deep down what you really feel. Jesus, Dec, when they told me the bloke I’d found in the car park was you, I felt sick. There was so much blood, your face was so swollen and bloody it was unrecognisable. We went straight to the hospital when they told us, I sat with you most of the night. I had a lot of time to think about why I was doing that, if I was so glad to be shot of you and all your fucking shit. Beth had already started to – I dunno – forgive you?
Jay ran his hands through his hair as he tried to explain it all.
łAfter you found Cal that time, she couldn’t stay angry. I wasn’t so ready – when I saw you again, after you found him, it just brought back all that anger, I mean I was so fucking relieved he was OK, and grateful, but I didn’t want to be, it was all churning around, wishing it had been anyone else who’d found him. But after that, Beth made me talk about you, and I found I could bear to say your name. Actually, she got me thinking. She asked why I still had your number on my phone if I was done with you. If I’d deleted it, Cal wouldn’t have been able to ring you that time, and things might have been a lot different.
I had wondered the same thing myself – had expected him to have deleted all traces of me from his life, by the time I got Cal’s call.
łI didn’t have a good answer to that, apart from maybe I wasn’t as done as I thought. So, I sat there in the hospital looking at you with your broken bones and your stitches and your bruises and your unrecognisable beaten up fuck-ugly face, and it occurred to me that you don’t sit there all night waiting for someone to wake up, to know they’re alright, if you don’t care about them. I thought about what you’d done, and how it made me feel, and decided that whether you had reasons for it or not, it was just part of us. I stopped being angry. Stopped blaming you. Accepted it. You need to do the same. Do you remember Rose saying, when you were in hospital, something about you being sad because you’d lost us, lost your family?
łWell, that was what finally sorted it for me. Whatever you had been thinking while you were away from us, it wasn’t that you wanted to ditch us. You still thought of us as your family, and had done all along, whatever else you’d been trying to prove along the way. It was really important for me and Beth to know that, that it wasn’t all one way from us, that you felt the same. Fuck me, Dec, this is hard. You know I don’t usually do all this emotional talking shit. And, there you go, here are the tissues, join me in the blub club.
My eyes were streaming tears. I was completely choked up. Telling Jay about the past had stirred up feelings I had buried deep down, and the reality of still being part of his family was breaking over me. I was close to losing control and I needed to push it back down before it took over and swamped me. I closed my eyes, took some deep breaths and focussed on what Jay was saying.
łSo, bottom line, you need to get your head sorted. No more of this ‘worthless’ crap. You’re worth a lot to us. Find out what’s going on in that skull. Stop saying sorry, start accepting help from people. You’re in this family, whether you like it or not. OK?
I took another deep, shuddery breath and pushed the past back as far as it would go. It would still be there waiting, another day. Opened my eyes and looked at him.
‘Jay, are we really OK now?’
łYes, Dec, we’re OK. I think in a way, we always were, although looking back maybe neither of us would have said so at the time. It might have taken us a while longer to get there; whoever smashed that bottle over your head did us all a huge favour. Don’t ever stop talking to me again, OK?
A wave of relief swamped me. I started to cry again.
łYou know what, it’s fucking Christmas tomorrow. No blubbing allowed. Come here.
He stood up and pulled me to my feet, throwing his arms round me, slapping me noisily on the back. I sniffled on his shoulder.
łOK, that’s enough of that.
Although his eyes were wet too.
łI think we need beer. Fuck, should have thought of that before.
I wiped my eyes.
‘Er, not sure I’m allowed.’
łWhat? Says who?
‘Don, weeks ago.’
‘Well, after I was suspended I went on a bit of a major vodka bender. Lost two days. Missed an appointment with him. He was rather pissed off. Made a no alcohol rule.’
łTwo days? Impressive. Ohh … so that’s where you disappeared to. Absolutely fucking everyone was looking for you. He won’t have intended for it to cover Christmas, he probably hasn’t even thought about telling you it’s OK now. Come on, you can’t have Christmas Eve without beer!
The door opened, and it made me jump, and I should have run back to bed, but it was Dad going to the kitchen and he didn’t see me. I heard him talking to Mum. I went down the rest of the stairs and stood in the doorway to the living room.
There was a movement in the doorway – Cal stood there, blinking guiltily. I wondered if he’d been waiting on the stairs like he used to, trying to listen.
‘Dec, I’m not going to sleep.’
‘Why’s that, mate?’
‘It’s nearly Christmas.’
It was best not to tell him I’d been on the stairs trying to listen to what he’d been saying to Dad.
‘Are you excited?’
‘Come over here, let me tell you about the Christmas Mouse.’
This was a new story. Dec had never told me the Christmas Mouse before. We got into the reading position, and I warmed up a bit, because it had been cold sitting on the stairs in my pyjamas.
The Christmas Mouse story was about mouse children who wanted to see if Santa came to mice children, and how they saved a cat and …
It was a story Mum used to tell me when I couldn’t sleep on Christmas Eve. Cal found a place under my arm and snuggled in. When Jay came back with the beer, Cal was nearly asleep. A few more minutes, and he was completely out. Jay picked him up gently and carried him upstairs, while Beth came in and sat next to me on the sofa.
_I’m glad you’ve sorted stuff out with James. It’s been a completely horrible end to the year, he needed this. Are you alright, sweetheart? It sounds like you had quite an emotional conversation.
‘I’ll be OK. I told him a lot of stuff I haven’t thought about for a long time, things I’ve never told anyone before. I’m sure he’ll tell you. Need to put it away somewhere in my head for another day. Do I need to sort stuff out with you, too?’
My heart sank a bit at going over it all again with Beth, but if that’s what it took, I would. I’d do anything to make things right with these two people who meant more to me than I’d ever been willing to admit to myself.
_Not really, sweetheart. You found Cal when he ran away. That sorted me. You cared enough to go looking for him. You knew him well enough to know where he’d be. You found him and you told me and you loved us enough to walk away. I could see how hard that was for you. I’m so glad you’re here now.
‘I hate that I upset you, I hate that I upset Cal.’
_I know, Dec. I hate that we didn’t help you when you needed it. It’s done now. None of us can change what we did, although we can regret things and try not to do them again. Did you ever stop loving us?
‘No. I thought about you all the time.’
_Then that’s all I need to know. I was more upset that you didn’t talk to us than anything you might have done. I didn’t understand why you didn’t want us to help. You know me, I like to talk about things, and it hurt to be shut out. I thought we trusted each other.
‘Sorry. I’m sorry for everything, what I did, you know … ‘
‘I know, sweetheart. It’s finished now. I think you and James have just done more talking than either of you have ever done in your lives before. Don’t stop now, will you.
She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.
_You know you never need to feel alone. You’ve always got us.
‘Thanks, Beth. It really means a lot. I guess, before, I just took it all for granted. I didn’t realise what I had with you all until I chucked it away.’
_Maybe sometimes you have to lose something before you realise how much it means to you. I didn’t know how much you were a part of our family until you’d gone and there was this big hole. I know I’m so pleased to have you back. Let’s talk more about things, out in the open, whatever’s bothering us.
‘I’ll try. Not my strong point.’
_Ha ha, don’t I know it. All any of us can do is try, sweetheart. God, I’m knackered. All evening talking to Carol is exhausting at the best of times. I’m going to bed. Remind James to put the presents under the tree, and some in Matty’s room, and do Cal’s stocking, would you?
_One day, when you’re ready, I’d love to hear about your mum and dad.
My eyes filled with tears, which I blinked away.
‘See you tomorrow.’
I heard her go upstairs, and then heard her voice as she talked to Jay. A few minutes later, Jay came back into the living room, with a bottle opener.
łRight, let’s get these open and watch something Christmassy on the telly.
He opened the beers and handed one to me. And that was that, finished for now with the pain of explanations and remembering. Jay had switched back into normal life straight away. It took me longer to leave the darkness and come back to now.
The beer helped. It tasted really good, but went to my head pretty quickly. I hadn’t drunk anything alcoholic for quite a while now, and my system had adapted. When Jay got another a bit later, I took it a bit more slowly, but when I stood up to go to the loo, I swayed slightly.
łBloody hell, Dec, are you drunk? On two? You lightweight!
‘I’m not used to it. Need to build up my resistance again. Or something.’
łHave to see what we can do over the next couple of days, then.
‘Can’t go too mad, strict instructions from Steve.’
łBollocks to Steve, what does he know? He’s only got degrees in nutrition and stuff. I say fuck him, it’s Christmas.
I laughed. And burped.
‘OK, fuck him, it’s Christmas. Sounds good. Now I really need to pee.’
Some time later, Jay had had a couple more, I had managed one and was close to falling asleep. The TV was still on, but the programme had changed, and was now some Christmassy chat show. There was laughter, and music, and it felt happy and jolly, and finally, after months of unhappiness and uncertainty, I felt I could begin to relate to it. I sat and watched it, enjoyed the feelings that were starting to open up again inside me.
łCome on, Dec, you should go to bed. Early start with Cal tomorrow.
‘Yeah, but Beth said – oh what did she say, something to remind you – oh yeah. Presents under the tree, and in Matt’s room, and Cal’s stocking.’
łBollocks. Completely forgot. At least they’re all wrapped. Give me a hand, there’s bloody loads.
I followed Jay to a cupboard in the utility room. He was right, it was crammed with presents. He got a few black bin bags and shovelled them in.
‘Are you expecting a coach load tomorrow or something?’
łHa ha, no most of these are Cal’s. Spoilt or what? Beth’s family have gone overboard a bit, and I suppose we have, too. He’s only little once, isn’t he. Here, you take this bag and do Matty’s tree. Mum’s in there, she will have fallen asleep. Don’t know if Matty’s awake or not.
‘I’ll be quiet.’
łThanks, and then take this up with you when you go to bed, swap it over.
He held up a duplicate of Cal’s stocking, which was bulging with exciting looking shapes.
‘What do I do with the other one?’
łOh, I don’t know, Beth usually handles that. Er, hide it in your bag or something?
‘OK. Matt’s tree, Cal’s stocking, hide in bag. Got it.’
I headed over to Matt’s room, opened the door and crept in as quietly as I could. The room was lit only by the lights from the Christmas tree. Jay’s mum was asleep in the chair, Matt was breathing noisily, eyes closed. I started putting the presents under the tree, trying to make as little sound as possible.
The next time I woke, I heard a rustling and looked over to the Christmas tree where it had come from. Beth wasn’t there, and Mum was asleep, head back against the chair, mouth open. Dec appeared to be piling presents around the tree.
‘Ho ho ho.’
‘Ahnything fuh me?’
‘Have you been a good boy?’
‘Then probably not. You know the rules. I expect you’re on the naughty list.’
Oh I loved it, that someone was willing to treat me as if I was a person who could possibly have had a past, and done things that deserved a slap, rather than a person with only a present who deserved relentless making of allowances and pitying looks. I was really warming to this disrespectfully amusing teenager.
Mum stirred in the chair and opened her eyes; we’d woken her up with our chattering. She looked over at me and stated the obvious.
‘You’re awake, dear. I must have dozed off.’
She leaned towards me and stroked my forehead. I put up with it because it was Mum, and it was what mums do. Then she looked over at Dec.
‘Hello Declan. What time is it?’
‘Goh tuh bed, Muhm.’
I knew she usually went to bed early, and was likely to be up at the crack of dawn basting turkey or some such shit.
‘No, I’m alright, dear, I can sleep here in the chair.’
And since when did I need a round the clock babysitter?
‘Noh need, got monitor. Dec’ll stay foh bit?’
I hoped he would pick up on my need to boot Mum out before she stayed in my room all night. He seemed to.
‘Sure, mate, if you want.’
‘Yeh. Goh tuh bed, Muhm.’
‘Alright, dear, if you’re sure. Goodnight.’
She stood up, leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, then left, closing the door behind her.
I looked gratefully at Dec.
‘Thahks. Everyone fuhsses. Bluhdy exhosting.’
‘Tell me about it, you spend more energy trying to stop them going on than you would if they just bloody well left you alone.’
It really sounded like he knew where I was coming from. I thought about what he’d been through the past few weeks and realised he probably did.
‘Heh, yuh geh ih.’
‘Been there myself, quite recently. Still there, a bit, to be honest. It’s hard to let them love you.’
And he just kept hitting the nail on the head. My eyes filled with bastard unbidden tears.
‘No worries, I’m a fully paid up member of the blub club. Seem to spend half my life wiping my eyes and apologising at the moment.’
I wondered whether his conversation with my brother had happened yet. Beth had engineered a vacancy in the living room earlier, but I’d been asleep – oh, that was why she and Mum were both in here together with the magazines and the mince pies.
‘Yuh talked wih Jay?
‘Yeah. We sorted some stuff out. I feel a lot better, I think he does too.’
‘Guhd, he nehded tha.’
‘Him and Beth ahr pretty greht.’
I felt like I needed to remind him how lucky he was that they cared this much about him, grown up that I was.
Then Dec’s eyes filled up. Fuck, I’d made him cry. Nice one Matt, you bastard. He was quiet for a bit, wiping his eyes, then breathed in and straightened up.
‘Santa’s got more jobs to do before he can go to sleep, I’ve got to do Cal’s stocking without waking him up, then try and get a few hours sleep before the middle of the night when he’s going to wake up.’
‘Kay. Seh yuh tomohrow.’
‘Will you be OK?’
I thought of the list of night time tasks Jay usually did, but hadn’t because I was asleep. No way was I asking Dec to help me change into my night clothes, but maybe there were a few things he could do. I hummed and hawed to myself about just how much I could ask of this kid I barely knew … oh bollocks, I was going to have to ask him to take my piss bottle. I’d had it under the covers, full, with the lid on, since Mum and Beth were playing the mince pie game. If I didn’t get it emptied I wouldn’t be able to pee in the night if I needed to. Arsing fucknozzles.
‘Couhd yuh ehmpty thihs?’
I held out the plastic piss collector as if I gave teenagers containers full of the ex-contents of my bladder as a matter of course, no big deal, it’s what mature grown-ups do all the time.
To his enormous credit, Dec didn’t even blink before he took it and headed off … er out of the room?
‘Whehr yuh goin?’
He turned round in the doorway, making my piss slosh lustily in its plastic prison.
‘Ehr, why noh pouhr ih dohn the loo?’
The short pause and then the lights going on behind his eyes were almost worth the humiliation of having to ask.
‘Oh yeah. Dur. Like, as if anyone’s going to want to have a cup that’s been washed up in a sink full of your piss.’
‘Heh, my pihs is sought ahfter in sehventehn couhntries. Sehls fuh mihlions.’
‘Oh really? Remind me why I’m tipping it away then.’
‘Creahting a demahnd.’
‘Genius. Toilet it is then, much as it pains me to pour away millions of quids worth of golden liquid that, er, seventeen countries could otherwise fight over for the privilege of … er … what did you say they did with it?’
‘Duhno. Ohnce ih lehves the fahtory, ih’s noh my prohblem.’
‘Fair enough. Sound business sense. Right, here goes then.’
He went into the en-suite bathroom and I heard a splash as he emptied the bottle, then the tap running as he (presumably) rinsed it out and (hopefully) washed his hands.
‘Alright? Anything else you need?’
‘Thanks. Could yuh turn lights off and monitor on?’
Much as it pained me to point it out, I aimed a finger at the small plastic speaker on the table next to the bed. It was almost as humiliating as the piss bottle.
‘So Jay can hehr if I chohk to death.’
‘Oh, don’t do that mate. That would seriously dampen the festive mood. I might not be able to eat my Christmas dinner.’
And there it was again, the cheeky banter, black humour, just what I needed.
‘Fuck ohf. Oh shih, did yuh already tuhn it on?’
I’d started speaking just as he flipped the switch. Beth would have just got an earful upstairs. Dec shrugged, grinned, flicked the Christmas tree lights off and left the room with a youthful swagger. He was turning out to be surprisingly good to have around.
Jay was still in the living room, placing the last few presents on top of an enormous pile. He looked up at me when I came in, shaking his head.
łJesus, we’re going to be here all day tomorrow with this lot. I’m almost tempted to put some away for another day.
‘You can’t do that!’
łNo, suppose not. Matty alright? I heard Mum go up.
‘Yeah. Where’s the monitor linked to?’
łOur room – we’ve got one in here too, but it’s not always on. Why?
‘I think I might have made him tell Beth to fuck off via the intercom.’
I grinned. He looked at me and wagged his finger admonishingly.
łYou really are a bad influence, Declan Summers. Keep it up, you’re good for him. OK, that’s it. I am now officially bushed. It doesn’t feel right going to bed before midnight on Christmas Eve, but I don’t think I can last any longer. Here’s Cal’s stocking, make really sure he’s not awake when you do the switch. You going to bed now?
‘Yeah, need to get as much sleep as I can, it’ll soon be three o’clock.’
łIt certainly will, my friend. I look forward to the extra hours of sleep your presence has awarded us.
I followed Jay up the stairs, got undressed in the bathroom and crept into Cal’s room, using the landing light to see by. He was lying on his back, one arm flung over his head. His breathing was regular and his eyes were moving beneath his eyelids as if he was dreaming. As far as I could tell, he was asleep. I took the empty stocking off the post by his head, and hooked the full one on in its place. I stuffed the empty one deep in my bag, hoping I would remember to give it back before I left. Then I flicked off the landing light, climbed into bed and lay down.
I wanted to go to sleep, but after my conversation with Jay, there was too much swirling around for me to wind down. I hadn’t thought about Mum and Dad, or anything from back then, for a long time, not properly. I allowed myself to remember the last Christmas I’d had with them, at home, dinner, presents, everything. I could barely remember their faces. It made me sad. Conscious of Cal asleep above me, I pushed the memories away before they made me cry, as I didn’t think I’d be able to stop. Eventually I slept.
Dreaming. I am flying around the world. First I visit Mum and Dad and younger me. It is Christmas Eve, and Mum is reading me the Christmas Mouse. I watch through the window as she closes the book, carries me to bed and tucks me in. Then I fly off, over the sea, chasing snowflakes and reindeer and twinkling stars until I reach Jay, Beth and Cal. Cal is opening presents on Christmas morning, Jay and Beth are watching. I fly in through the window and sit with them for a bit. Then I fly back up to the stars and watch the world shining. Someone is next to me. I look down and see brown boots. Look up and …